Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Lord Bison's Doom

The Lord Bison has a recent post where he was discussing the extent of the depopulation in a post crash world.  As a bit of background, when he says crash, he means CRASH!  Like sports car chase scene in the Alps: burnt rubber, squealing tires, the blur of primary colors, then:  the bad guys  miss the hairpin turn:  a triple flip, bump and grind with wheels flying, and a suitable explosion at the bottom of the chasm; that kind of crash.  He starts by noting a historical example of St. Matthews Island where reindeer population, within the closed system of a small island, ballooned from twenty-nine to six-thousand before crashing back to 2% of the high mark. 


If we follow the reindeer lead we kill off all but about 120 Million, M as in million, not B as in billion, people globally. However, reindeer don’t have nuclear weapons , motor vehicles still containing some petroleum, semi-automatic weapons and a really bad case of entitlement, nor are they capable of eating each other. I think a better guess is that under one hundred million will survive. Perhaps only a few ten’s of millions. Now, that is the good news.

The bad news is that probably every one of us here will be included in the fatalities. We all live too close to each other. We all commute to the same area to work, and we all import our food from other areas. The problem with preventing yourself from being a casualty is that we are first going to go through a economic collapse before a die-off. All those of you safely billeted out on your remote farms will lose the homestead to the bank first. Gasoline will become too expensive to work out of the retreat. If your retreat is paid and you grow all your food and you can stay out of town, you will most likely survive IF, and only if, you have enough extra food and weapons to bribe your helpers to defend it.

Well, I don’t want to go into tactics here.  With so many possible scenarios, and with  the 6 and three-quarter  billion variables known as people, I could not possibly anticipate all the possible permutations and outcomes of such an enormous collapse. 

But what I can do is take advantage at my absurdly eclectic historical knowledge and wide reading to see what sort of number does come up and if possible a few details of what might happen in the future, based on what happened in the past.

In this particular instance I am going to look at a very early time period.  It is a collapse that we have covered before.  But here I am going to look at a very specific area within that collapse:  Homeric Greece.

Homeric Greece is the Greece of the Trojan Wars as noted in Homer's Iliad.  The portrayal of Homeric Greece in the Iliad and Odyssey was not particularly accurate.  The Greeks who survived the collapse were much like the high medieval French who developed the Vulgate (Common French language versus Latin) cycle of the Arthurian Tales.  They imagined their fore-father hero’s being in cultural setting somewhat similar to their own- albeit a fairly fantastical version of their reality.

The actual Greece of the time was a collection of rural settlements dominated by large palaces.  Some of these palace complexes, the Greek Thebes in particular, were  more important  than others.  To some degree it is closer, at least economically, to Medieval Europe than the city-state polis that came later.  One important aspect of this society was that it was very close to the mega-empires of the near east, and that by trading ideas and high end materials with these empires, they had elevated the life style of their upper society to a high level of architecture and sophistication.
Simon Price and Peter Thonemann in The Birth of Classical Europe almost seem to be at pains to discuss the causes behind and extent an area wide collapse.  They note that many of the major sites were inhabited throughout the Dark Ages.  From the description it sounds somewhat like the beggars sitting on the ruins of the palace.

The archeology paints a depressing picture of the Greek world in the centuries after the fall of the Mycenaean palaces.  Overall, the number of inhabited places in mainland Greece fell by two-thirds in the twelfth century and by another two-thirds in the eleventh century.  This was the low point….  Of course, settlement numbers on their won mean nothing: the crucial variable is settlement size.  If individual places were larger in the eleventh century than before or later, the drop in the number of settlements would be less significant. But in fact the scale of the settlements in the early Iron Age is generally smaller than that in the periods on either side.  Some have tried to quantify the extent of the drop in population, but such estimates are premature on the basis of what we know at the present…

Clustered, or ‘nucleated’, settlements did persist, especially on Crete, where they ranged from 1 to 4 hectares, but on the Greek mainland, ‘settlements’ often consisted of a few loose groups of dwellings, each with just a handful of houses.  There is no sign of centralized organization, no grand stone architecture, and no clearly deliminated public spaces.
In an epic poem of the 7th century, the Cypria, which tells the story of the Trojan War roughly up to the point of where Homer’s the Iliad starts, the story tells of Zeus bringing about the war and its casualties as a way of remedying the overpopulation on the earth. Hesiod in his Works and Days, although written a bit later, also appears to be remembering this time (sited in The Sea Peoples):

Father will have no common bond with son
Neither will guest with host, nor friend with friend
The brother-love of past days will be gone….
Men will destroy the towns of other men.
The just, the good, the man who keeps his word
Will be despised, but men will praise the bad
And insolent. Might will be right and shame
Will cease to be.  Men will do injury
To better men by speaking crooked words
And adding lying oaths, and everywhere
Harsh-voiced and sullen-faced and loving harm,
Envy will walk along with wretched men.

There are a number of mass migrations-invasions of the Greek mainland that are traditionally place in this time period.  The Ionian migration is said to have conquered twelve cities along the coast.  They purportedly killed all the men, and married their wives and daughters.  From this came their tradition of forbidding women to sit at the table with husbands or address them by name.  The other invading groups would include the Boeotians, Aeolians, and Dorians. There is some linguistic evidence for these invasions, but it is not really clear how often they were invasions, or whether they were moving into nearly emptied lands.

Price and Thonemann describe one other aspect of these troubled times.  Abandonment of towns for more defensible locations. The town of Lefkandi, was abandoned and the remnants founded a small settlement on an the rocky outcropping of an island facing the Greek mainland.  This settlement location reminded me of the (more thorough documented) way that the natives of the Baltics in the 12th century choose to site their settlements.

It is not generally understood that Baltic Shores were still very much in a dark ages of their own very late into the Middle Ages.   The German’s under the leadership of the Teutonic Knights are slowly trying to push in and Christianize the pagans in the area.  The various combatants in the area are too long to list with some of the major groups being: Wends, Swedes, and Slavs.   And if today we picture, motorcycle gangs racing down the interstate; the interstates of that day was the relatively tranquil waters of the Baltic.

 None of the towns was built directly on the coast; they were on inlets, rivers and lagoons- on top of a cliff, in the case of Arkona – where the balance between accessibility and security had allowed them to grow.  Following the line from west to east, we begin thirty miles from the Danish and Saxon borders…. This coast was far too exposed to raider for settlement, and Oldenburg could only be approached from the sea by going round to the east and sailing in along a fifteen-mile series of interconnecting lakes….There was the beginnings of the future city of Rostock – a temple, anchorage and merchant settlement seven miles upriver that was soon to outgrow the large fortifications where the Kissini took refuge nearby.  [The island of Rügen had two remarkable towns]: Arkona on the very north-eastern tip of the island, looking out to sea over tall white cliffs; and Karenz (modern Garz), a lake town in the southern part of the island.  Arkona appears to break the normal rule of keeping away from the shore, but the appearance is deceptive: the cliffs were too steep and the shore too dangerous for a direct approach from the sea and all shipping had to go round by the shallow inlets which flood the central part of Rugen, or risk a landing to the south where the cliff is much lower….[the examples continue for some time]….Eric Christiansen, The Northern Crusades 1100-1525.

So hopefully this gives you a little picture of what went on.  A few important centers held on in very diminished circumstances.  But most of the remnants were hiding out in little inaccessible enclaves scratching out a meager existence.  It looks a lot like the collapse after the Fall of Rome that we discussed, except that more than one empire fell.

And this brings us back to the numbers. 
Now if you look at world population estimates for this time period, you would get a number that is something like 50 million. But this number would include some areas that were far less advanced than Greece which was right next door to the birth place of agriculture.  Since Homeric Greece is our basis of comparison, we are going to want a basis point for an entire world much like Homeric Greece.  If you look at a time line of population, you will see that at the year 0, world population was at 300 million and did not move much until after 1300, by 1800 you are getting to an estimate of 1 billion people.

For a worldwide equivalence to Homeric Greece we will take the  population count as being 80% of the year 0 total of the highly advance Roman-Chinese (RC) era (300 million).  You would have a world population of 240 million if all the world was like Homeric Greece.

The world of 1800 has 1 billion people.  But as Lord Bison points out, populations will expand beyond the equilibrium point before they actually run out of supplies.  The world of 1800 had a number of very sophisticated governments that were very close to maximizing the output available without using too much in the way of fossil fuels [England was already using coal, as we noted here, but that is a small portion of the total].  One of our base numbers is the sustainable number without fossil fuels.  We will set this number at 800 million worldwide under the presumption that the 1 billion likely would have tapered off and fallen back at least some (as previous booms had) without the industrial-agricultural-prime mover transport revolution occurring.

Here are the numbers we will use:  Homeric Greek world (HGW) of 240 million,  the maximum non-fossil fuel world (MNFFW) of 800 million, and our current world population (6,775,235,700).  There is one other number, that we will get to latter.

As was highlighted in red above, the Greeks lost 66% of their  settlements, and then another 66% loss on that remnant. This puts you at  12% of our original settlements.  If these settlements also have a noticeably smaller population you are going to be in the 9% range of the initial population size even if the individual settlements are only 20% smaller.

So what does this 12% get you.  Using the hypothetical HGW population of 240 million, you would have 21.6 million (9% remnant) people left.   If our current world population took this type of loss, you would have 610 million people remaining.  Projecting Lord Bisons' Reindeer rate on the modern world population (98% loss) would get you a remnant of almost 136 million souls.  So in a post fossil fuel world die-off you could go from a low of 136 million (2% remnant) to the 800 million (12% remnant) of of the 17th century.

We said that there was one other baseline number we wanted to discuss.  That is the 21.6 million remnant people left in the HGW scenerio.   Lord Bison's 136 million souls is less then the starting point for the semi-organized local crop production starting point of the HCW world, so it has valid points beyond reindeer comparisons.

However, one item should be noted, the Homeric Greek population was heavily populated for its time and technology level.  It may not have been as organized as our world, but it is clearly more organized than the automobile of the side of the mountain scenario.    So the HGWscenarioBison's remnant 21.6 million people, may turn out to be our remnant.  After all the most of the people of the Homeric Greek era did know how to grow their own food and they didn’t know how to build atomic weapons. 

If their remnant, turns out to be our remnant the survival rate would be 3/10ths of 1%, and Lord Bison might be too optimistic.

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